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8 35mm ISO 400 Black & White Films Compared!
Remember when ISO 400 was considered "fast"? In an age where top-end DSLRs can reach beyond ISO 100,000, let's look at currently-available 35mm black and white film that can still rock your world. (Pricing is at Adorama, current as of February 25, 2014; for easier comparison, I show 36 exposure pricing where available)
By Mason Resnick
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Current price: $4.49/36 exposures
Possibly the most recognized name in black-and-white film, Tri-X is a general-purpose, moderate-grain ISO 400 film with good latitude that is forgiving of high-contrast scenes and over- and underexposure, good sharpness, and high resolving power. It can tolerate almost every developer on the market, and dries flat for good scanning.
Online review round-up:
Adorama commenters say: "I use this for general all-around photography, mostly because it can be used at night with or without flash, up to around 1600 (although some people say it could be pushed up to 3200 with no problem.) " and "There've been a few updates throughout the years, but Tri-X is still one of the true standards of the industry. I's reliable, has a nice grain structure, and is as forgiving as any 400 film can be," and "I have been using this film for ages, its such a great film and enables you to push the film if needed. Use xtol for super fine grain, but d-76 is good enough for me."
Filmcamera999, in the blog post The magic that is Tri-X" writes: "Sure, there is quite a bit of graininess present with this film, but that is half the fun and beauty of using it. It somehow manages to infuse a magical quality to your shots that you would swear were not observable when you took the photos! With hand on heart, I can safely say that digital black and white shots just do not, and for me, cannot have the mystery and magic that shooting with this film gives."
Current price: $4.95/36 exposures
Claimed to be the world's sharpest, finest-grained ISO 400 film, T-Max compares well, grain-wise, to ISO 100 film. Reformulated in 2007 to be even sharper and smaller-grained than its previous iteration, T-Max now has a UV barrier to prevent backside static exposure, and the film appears hazy when wet after processing, but this disappears when the film dries. Kodak recommends 1:1 or 1:3 developer dilutions but not more highly diluted formulas, as this could lead to more grain. That said, when you follow both processing and exposure best practices, you'll be blown away by what is arguably the king of ISO 400. Kodak's statement: "A continuous tone, panchromatic black-and-white negative film that is especially useful for photographing dimly lighted subjects, fast action, extended range flash pictures, and subjects that require good depth of field. This film is highly useful for scientific and biomedical work, especially when fluorescence photography is required."
Online review round-up:
Adorama commenters say: "I've used many Kodak, Ilford, and Fuji films. My first roll of T-Max nailed the look I was after! I wasn't expecting anything special after my flat, uninspiring runs with Tri-X, so to find a fast, affordable black and white Kodak film with just the right contrast, sharpness, and tones was a nice surprise." and "TMAX is wonderful film. It's predictable and you know what you're going to get when you shoot it right. Tremendous push-pull ability, excellent tonal range representation and it's easy to juice it for a little more contrast in a given shot. But tone-curve is excellent."
John Sexton writes: "...T-MAX 400 film provides a grain structure that is superior to anything I've seen in a 400-speed film. That, combined with Kodak's legendary quality control and consistency, makes this film a most valuable tool."
Ilford HP-5 Plus
Current price: $4.75/36 exposures
Less expensive than its sibling Delta 400, HP-5 Plus has been a workhorse film for photojournalists and street photographers for decades. It is ideal for action, available light and general purpose photography. It is designed to give optimum results under most lighting conditions and when processed in a wide range of developers. It pairs very well with Ethol UFG or Ilford Microphen, and is a good choice when shooting in poor lighting conditions. The film's base tint makes it easy to assess contrast on a light box, and bold frame numbers make life easier in the darkroom. HP5 dries flat and scans well, and is more forgiving of exposure errors.
Online review round-up:
Adorama reviewers say: "I was mildly surprised with how smooth the grain was for a 400 ISO film! My first roll yielded outstanding results!" and "It show the details of all tones and ranges. It is very easy to self develop; and the results are very pleasing!"
Photographyreview.com's commenters say: "Low inherent contrast, but not too low like Delta 3200. High malleability. Its real strength is in its versatility. Most situations can be handled on this film to produce highly acceptable results. A total workhorse, just like Tri-X." and "It's a real work-horse that gives consistent results. I think it give nice rich blacks and decent tonality for a 400 speed film. Grain is nearly invisible, very good for a 400 speed film."
Ilford Delta 400
Current price: $6.29/36 exposures
Considered by many to be a great fine-art film, Delta 400 compares favorably to T-Max with good grain, shadow detail and tonality, and dries flat so it can scan well. Ilford claims it has a true ISO 400 speed, with results that are similar to those expected of a conventional medium-speed black-and-white film. It can be easily pulled to ISO 200 or pushed to 1600 with excellent results, and works with all popular developers. Statement from the manufacturer: "For the creative photographer, the combination of speed and precision is a liberation: hand held portraits in available light have smooth skin tones and tack-sharp detail; reportage photography no longer suffers from gritty, conspicuous grain. For studio photographers, the film's high speed spells smaller apertures, shorter exposures and lower lighting requirements - without any quality sacrifices."
Online review round-up
Adorama reviewers say: "As one of the first films many art students use, delta400 has a warm place in many hearts. I use it because of it's consistency, which is also why it makes a great teaching tool." and "This is my favorite 400 speed black and white film. It is consistent and the grain is really appealing to me, and best of all it scans very well."
Shutterbug's Jay Abend wrote of the current version of Delta 400, which was reformulated in 2001: "Grain is quite fine and sharpness is just superb...the grain is very well contained...At a two-stop push it's hard to believe that you're looking at film exposed at ISO 1600. Unlike the old formulation, this new film stock appears to retain quite a bit more highlight detail when pushed."
Fujifilm Neopan 400: Going, going...
Current price: $4.99/36 exposures
Easily push-processed to ISO 1600, Fuji Neopan 400 is a Japanese-made emulsion that offers wide exposure latitude, fine grain and good sharpness. Unfortunately, it was discontinued in 2013, but as of this writing in February 2014 there is still some stock available.
Current price: $3.95/36 exposures
Manufactured in the UK, Kentmere is owned by Harmon, which also owns Ilford, but costs considerably less, making it a good choice for students. The manufacturer says: "Thanks to revolutionary core shell emulsion technology, it has a level of sharpness and freedom from grain that belies the film's light grabbing ISO 400 speed. The most significant technology shift is in shadow rendition: thin areas of the negative are slightly denser and hold detail much better.Kentmere 400 has wide exposure latitude and a tonal range that matches easily on both graded and variable contrast printing papers. Kentmere 400 is the ideal choice for applications that demand high quality, but where extra film speed is an advantage. It is suitable for pictorial, fine art as well as fashion photography and for many areas that were formerly the preserve of slower films."
Online review round-up
Adorama Reviewers say: "Okay I must admit I am a Kodak man, having shot with Tmax 400 all my life I was skeptical. A friend suggested I try Kentmere . At half the cost I was not sure. When I developed my first roll I was blown away by the performance. This film rocks great contrast,the tone is bold and deep. My images POP! I simply matte and frame andI have stunning show quality images" and "Lower resolution than competing ISO 400 (suggested) films, but has nice tonal range, and beautiful non-clumpy grain that makes out-of-focus areas melt into a pleasing, diffuse atmosphere. Can give wicked contrast when overexposed in direct sunlight (this is not a criticism--it looks awesome), but well-separated tones indoors."
Rangefinder forum participants say "it is grainier than hp5 and tri-x. the grain can seem a bit clumpy, too. BUT, it has an air about it, something different. it also dries just about flat, which is good for handling and scanning."
Current price: $3.99/24 exposures
Manufactured by Foma, a Czech film company, Holga 400 is a relatively low-cost black-and-white film. Holga's description: It's a panchromatically sensitized, black-and-white negative film designed for taking photographs under unfavorable lighting conditions or using short exposure times. This film will help you maximize your Holga experience. Under or overexpose it by 2-stops to achieve a wide variety of effects.
Online review round-up:
Photo.net commenters have said it is "very forgiving, lovely tonality" but not recommended "if scanning is its destination. The grain does not scan well." Flickr commentors say "it feels a little like Tri-X to me under standard conditions, though not quite as versatile. Its also prone to scratch easily."
Lomography Lady Grey 400
Current price: $17.90/3-pack (# exposures not known)
Made by Lomo, the folks who are leading the plastic toy camera revival, Lomography Lady Grey is an ISO 400 black-and-white film that is claimed to give "smooth grain, stunning tones and all the speed you need to shoot even under unfavorable lighting conditions." The film is made in the US but packaged in Mexicom and is only available in packs of 3.
Online review round-up:
Random Camera Blog says the film "looks like a T-Grain film" and that it would be "a good choice for general photography." http://howtodemocracy.blogspot.com/2013/12/film-review-lomography-lady-grey-400.html How To Democracy: The author agrees that the film is very similar to T-Max. His conclusions: "Looking at the results, it's easy to fall in love with Lady Grey. Shot with my Leica M4 and Summicron-M 35mm Version 4, there is an undeniable beauty to the film. Tone, grain and contrast, all of it is spot on (exposure errors excepted!). Even then, like all good modern Kodak B&W films, its wide exposure latitude means it's very forgiving of user error." The Film Pharmacist says "Lady Grey 400's performance has been quite consistent and the grain is quite sharp (its not as sharp as tmax but not as thick as ilford pan 400 or even Tri-X."
C-41 Process Monochrome Film
In addition to home-process-friendly films above, there are two chromogenic ISO 400 films available that you can send out to your local minilab, big box store or a limited number of online labs to process using the same C41 chemistry that's used for color film. This is a good solution if you don't have a home darkroom. Both Ilford XP2 Super ($6.49 for 36 exposures) and Kodak BW400CN ($6.50 for 36 exposures) have very fine grain, an extremely wide exposure latitude, and are good for scanning.
What's your favorite film? Leave a comment!